Match of the Noughties: 2009 – Manchester City 4 Sunderland 3

DURING the course of my journalistic career, I have twice been interviewed in my back yard by Scandinavian television stations. In both cases, the catalyst was Manchester City, that great curiosity of English football.

The first interview is the easier one to explain. When Sven-Goran Eriksson was appointed City manager in the summer of 2007, Swedish station SVT sent a crew over to Manchester to cover the story. As part of their report, they came to talk to me to get a local reporter’s view on Eriksson’s arrival.

It is slightly harder to get my head around why Danish TV wanted to chat to me in the wake of Mark Hughes’ sacking and Roberto Mancini’s arrival less than a week ago. There was certainly no direct Danish connection. As far as I can tell, the station’s reporter had come to England to interview Blackburn’s Danish defender Lars Jacobsen, and had a couple of hours to kill afterwards.

And so this very polite young Danish journalist, accompanied by a Manchester-based freelance cameraman, set up in the snow at the back of my home, and asked me to try to make sense of one of the most bizarre weeks in City’s recent history. Presumably, he then set about trying to translate my bafflement into Danish.

Having already shared my bafflement with Radio Manchester, Five Live, Talksport and Australian state radio, at least I didn’t have to think too hard about what to say.

Seven days before the Danish TV interview, I had driven to White Hart Lane to see City get thumped 3-0 at Tottenham. Considering that City were a side plotting a serious challenge for Champions League football, it was a dreadful performance. Manager Hughes was taunted by Tottenham’s fans with chants of: “You’re getting sacked in the morning.”

There were grumblings in the press room afterwards about City’s recent form – a run of one win in 10 league games. During that run, City had managed to set a new club record of seven successive league draws. They had been hard to beat, but they weren’t winning enough. Was Hughes the right man for the job?

The day after the Tottenham game, I appeared on Simon Mayo’s Five Live show, venturing the opinion that City’s owners would not panic, that the club could still climb the Premier League table, and that Hughes would be given until the end of the season.

Then came Friday morning’s Daily Telegraph.

It reported that City chief executive Garry Cook had contacted Guus Hiddink’s agent to sound out his availability. There was no denial of that contact forthcoming from Eastlands.

By Saturday morning, The Sun was so certain that Hughes was on his way, that it reported he would be sacked even if they beat Sunderland.

Things were happening very quickly. And the match itself, one of the most entertaining Premier League games I have ever seen, was a sideshow.

It later emerged that Hughes had confronted Cook before the game, demanding to know if he was about to be sacked. Cook didn’t say no.

As Roque Santa Cruz and Carlos Tevez, with a penalty, put City 2-0 up inside the first 12 minutes, Hughes betrayed not a flicker of emotion. He did show his agitation as John Mensah and Jordan Henderson pulled Sunderland back to 2-2, but there was still a growing sense around the ground that it was going to make no difference to his fate.

Craig Bellamy put City 3-2 up at half-time. But as the second half began, I became increasingly aware of club officials dashing to and from the press box with more urgency than usual. What they were saying, I could not tell. But it was obvious by now that something was afoot.

And yet the action on the pitch continued in a manic vein. Kenwyne Jones headed Sunderland level again. Santa Cruz poked in from close range to put City 4-3 in front. Sunderland defender Michael Turner was sent off for elbowing Gareth Barry. None of it distracted the crowd from the rumours spreading through the stands.

With 10 minutes to go, I got a text message from a colleague.

Club statement at 7.30. Hughes out, Mancini in?

At full-time, Hughes went on to the pitch to shake hands with every one of his players, and was embraced by captain Kolo Toure. He applauded the fans, than gave a wave which removed any remaining trace of doubt.

His sacking was confirmed shortly after 6.30pm, along with Mancini’s appointment. We later discovered that Mancini had first met City chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak in London on December 2, a full 17 days before the Sunderland game. He had been offered the job on the day after the Tottenham game, roughly around the time I was telling Mayo that I thought Hughes would be given until the end of the season.

The plan had been to tell Hughes of his sacking after the Sunderland match, so that al Mubarak could fly in from Abu Dhabi to deliver the news in person.

It wasn’t the first time a club had lined up a replacement before sacking their manager. And had City sacked Hughes within 24 hours of the Tottenham game, there would probably have been much less of a commotion. It was the two-day delay, the decision to allow Hughes to carry on into the Sunderland match, which sparked so much criticism in the media. Perhaps City’s board learned the lesson that there is no nice way to sack a manager, only quick and slow ways.

Mancini was introduced to the press the following Monday. I almost didn’t make it to the press conference – my driveway was iced up, and it took half-an-hour of skidding, swearing, pushing and revving to get my car off it.

I arrived at Eastlands just 10 minutes before the conference was due to start, to find the room packed out. So packed, that when I edged through the crowd to play my digital recorder on the front desk, I couldn’t get back to my seat, and so had to stay at the front. Which was probably not the best place to stand for a press conference being shown live, in its entirety, by Sky Sports News. I did at least resist the urge to wave at the cameras.

Cook could have been forgiven for dodging the press conference. He didn’t. Unsurprisingly, he got a verbal kicking over the board’s handling of Hughes’ sacking. The impartial observer would have described the press conference as great theatre. Me? I didn’t see much of it, as I tried to edge myself off to the side, out of shot, and found myself stuck behind two cameramen.

For me, it was a reminder that football can always find a way to surprise, no matter how much I may try to convince myself that I’ve seen everything. I may never see a week as dramatic as that one again, even if I cover games for another 10 years, which is by no means guaranteed.

My first match of the new decade, weather and good health permitting, will be Accrington’s FA Cup third-round tie against Gillingham. I can’t see that game bringing Scandinavian TV to my doorstep. But you never know…

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